The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus by Roger Payne, 1980.
One may at times feel that their connection to the Gods waxes and wanes and may begin to wonder why we as humans, even though we are spiritual beings, sometimes have a hard time connecting with the divine, as if there is some sort of block or distance between them and the Living Immortals which produce such fallow times. We must understand that though the Gods have one foot that is transcendent and beyond everything, They have another that is simultaneously immanent within our world, ever-present and always here, looking over our universe from the outside while also animating it and manifesting throughout the cosmos through a divine illumination which fills all things eternally. Everything being within the divine, They never walk away, but rather it is us who are blind and do not pay attention. If we wish to connect to the divine, then, what we really need to do is learn how to look and listen. Though this article is particularly aimed at helping Hellenes, it will hopefully be relevant for all people who wish to approach the divine, regardless of their path.
As technology develops and access to information becomes more accessible on a global scale, Hellenism’s revival (and the revival of many other polytheisms) is beginning to see a more international exposure, and with that it is drawing an audience from all over the world. Because of this, an increasing number of new Hellenes are often people who were not actually raised with the tradition, but rather are converts coming from various diverse backgrounds. Whether that be someone of the Greek and Latin cultural sphere (e.g., Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Portugal, Brazil, Mexico, etc) who was raised in a Roman Church but decided to embrace and connect to the ancestral indigenous tradition of their culture (a nostos, or “homecoming”), or someone far off in Korea who feels a strong connection to our Gods and ways, or even ex-atheists who have re-found the divine in this life, either realizing that their previous anti-theism had actually been a mere reaction towards harmful manifestations of religion that might have been present in their upbringing, or even simply people who never tried to connect to the divine before; these people of diverse backgrounds will develop a strong newfound desire to experience religion in ways they have not before and develop a personal relationship with a new face of the divine, and so will approach Hellenism as new converts. Whether that be because of divine experience they’ve received from the Gods, an agreement with the Hellenic ways of life and Hellenic wisdom, a dissatisfaction with experiences from their youth and desire to try something different that they strongly feel drawn to, or even simply an interest in worshiping the Gods, these individuals find something in Hellenism that deeply resonates with them and as such are led to embracing the Hellenic ethnos.
However, these same people might also be a little lost on what to actually do, and as such they often hold onto a certain amount of cultural baggage. This might manifest in the newly converted either defining their religion on the basis of their society’s expectations and their rough estimates, or defining their religion as being the exact opposite of the religion they were exposed to at birth as a mere reaction to it, rather than attempting to understand and define their new religion on its own terms. One cannot just jump into partaking in Hellenism without a proper understanding of what it is that they are practicing. One cannot begin practicing Hellenism without adopting and living a Hellenic mindset. One cannot begin practicing Hellenism without an understanding of how the rituals are properly performed. Nor can one practice Hellenism divorced from Hellenic theories of why you are worshiping; especially when they are inserting non-Hellenic theories in their place. To truly engage with Hellenism, education from Hellenic authors and teachers is not only beneficial, but it is mandatory.
The staple process of education in Hellenism is paideia. Paideia is based on the religious mos maiorum of Hellenism (Esler 2000, 1254), and it is what allows the formation of a proper Hellene, allowing one to properly Hellenize themselves and, with that, participate in the Hellenic ethnos. Paideia makes use of the “rich wisdom and resources of Hellenic literary heritage,” and has the “aim to develop a person to maturity” so that one can “relate properly both to the Gods and his fellow men” (Malley 1978, 114). Undergoing paideia is necessary to participate within the logoi of the Hellenes. It is a divine revelation brought by the Gods, and it is integral to the Hellenic conception of culture as it acts as the civilizing agent of humanity which collectively reveals salvation and civilization (Esler 2000, 1253, 1265-1266). Paideia encompasses literature, grammar, rhetoric, politics, law, government, medicine, drama, art, music, cultural practice, tradition, philanthropy, science, astronomy, cosmology, mathematics, military science, theology, philosophy, and religion (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, III 367-369, 389) (Esler 2000, 1266). Through disciplined education, paideia aims to shape an individual into understanding their true self— the truest and most innate human nature that realizes the eternal and actual self, the soul. Paideia doesn’t merely entail an expertise in merely one or even a few of the many arts; it is a moralizing process, as through paideia we learn Virtue (Greek: Arete, Latin: Virtus). And through paideia, one can tackle the baggage of cultural conditioning that they were raised with and, in its place, learn the new attitudes and proper practices necessary to partake in their new tradition and properly worship the Living Immortals. One can only engage in Hellenism by Hellenizing themselves, and one can only Hellenize themselves through paideia, where we acquire the knowledge on how to be a Hellene. Learn of Hellenism through the wise words of the divine sages like Plato, Iamblichus, or Julian. Envelop yourself in the divinely-inspired theological epics written by Homer and Hesiod. Read the works of prolific writers such as Plutarch and Cicero. Something highly recommended for all beginners to the eternal religion is the fourth century CE author Sallustius’ On the Gods and the Kosmos, which is something of a short easy-to-read Hellenic catechism that outlines basic Orphic-Platonic theories of worship and cosmology for beginners. Primary resources actually written by ancient Hellenes are essential and mandatory in this process, but there are well-researched academic modern secondary sources that can help you in developing a fuller understanding of Hellenism and potentially act as useful guides for further studies, but do not let these replace the actual words written by Hellenes. Something that you can do, that if actually available is absolutely indispensable, is join an actual Hellenic community near you, where you can engage with and submerge yourself into a formal community that can instruct and guide you on your spiritual path (do not feel bad if this is not doable, as this is not an option for most people).
Engaging yourself with paideia to understand your own tradition also provides context to personal religious experiences that one might have with the divine. After all, without engaging in paideia and receiving instruction on the tradition, one may receive a divine experience that they are left scratching their heads over, as they are left being unsure of what to make of it. After all, without having the adequate knowledge to engage with the tradition, one might be unaware that the Daimon they had an experience with at the Tiber river is Tiberínos, or be left wondering how to understand an auspicious sign after witnessing lightning strike a tree. By contextualizing such experiences within tradition, one can know how to approach and understand their experience in a way which are not disharmonious with the tradition itself. Understanding the Hellenic tradition through paideia also allows one to keep to it while simultaneously being able to embrace a degree of innovation to practice that is not contradictory to Hellenism, as one can distinguish between what is unchangeable versus what is changeable. To understand this, we must first acknowledge that the Gods are the ultimate sources of Their own cultus’, and so there exists an “authentic kernel” of each cultus that directly participates a God, that is immortal and divine and therefore unchangeable (Lankila 2016, 150). However, a God’s cultus is also partly mortal, as mortals participate in a God’s cultus by actively cultivating Their worship. This makes religious practice both partly divine and partly mortal, so while the divine kernel of the cultus cannot be changed, the mortal participation of it is subject to reform, and therefore a certain degree of innovation is allowed (Lankila 2016, 150). This is where having adequate knowledge of your tradition through paideia comes in handy, as it helps distinguish between the eternal divine kernel and the mortal practice of a cultus. If traditional forms of worship are seen as faulty, they can be replaced by what is perceived as more proper, and simultaneously authentic practices can be resurrected where they are absent (Lankila 2016, 149). This is thanks to Platonic scientific theology which allows adequate knowledge of the divine, which is acquired through dianoia (the capacity for discursive thinking) and theourgia (communion with the divine through experience) (Lankila 2016, 159). This regulation in reform is mandatory as any Personal Gnosis one acquires through personal religious experience with the divine is never to act as a loophole through which one is allowed to reject or contradict tradition, but rather act as something which enhances it. While Personal Gnosis can innovate how one practices the tradition, such innovation can only be done in ways which are not discordant to the tradition as a whole. Tradition will always carry more weight than Personal Gnosis; and while tradition is itself subject to interpretation and intense debate in understanding, one must not hold any interpretation of divine experience as having more weight to tradition. The key is harmonizing rather than outright rejecting the experience. In the situation that one comes across something in tradition that directly contradicts their Personal Gnosis, one may want to consider re-evaluating their spiritual experiences. Hold up the two contradictory ideas and let them percolate for a while until you feel you can better approach them, as perhaps you lack proper knowledge to contextualize your own experience to adequately understand it.
Reading up on the religion can also help those who already practice, but feel a little bit lost, whether that be reading something new, or even re-reading things you have already read through many times, as it can help to let oneself be inspired once again by the very passages that led them to Hellenism in the first place. When you re-read, do not shift through the texts swiftly as if you’re merely hunting for information, as that will turn this act of devotion intended to connect you to the divine into mere menial drudgery. Rather, truly let your eyes savour the words they are consuming, and allow the texts to embrace and take you.
Katharsis and Miasma
The Triumph of Titus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1885.
In his Work and Days, Hesiod writes (Hesiod Work and Days, 724–6):
“Do not pour libations of sparkling wine to Zeus and other immortals at dawn with unwashed hands—they do not hear your prayers, but spit them back.”
This notion of the Gods refusing the sacrifices of those who approach Them with unwashed hands relates to two integral concepts in Hellenism:
- Katharsis (Latin: Castitas): The state of ritual purity. Katharsis is the natural state of things in accordance to Natural Law, which is called Themis. Katharsis is essential for every human being to maintain, especially during worship, as otherwise all of their spiritual work is fruitless, as the Gods will “not hear your prayers, but spit them back” (Hesiod Work and Days, 724–6). Thus we can understand that purity is inseparable from securing the presence of the divine within human society.
- Miasma (Latin: Pollutio): The state of ritual impurity. Miasma is a spiritual pollution and subtle energy that can be described as the lingering aura of uncleanliness that various things and actions within the material realm of generation which transgress against the Natural Law may produce and be contaminated by.
Preoccupation with Katharsis and Miasma is a significant feature of Hellenism. Nithin Sridhar writes that “elements of Miasma-Katharsis could be found in the earliest of Greek muthois (oral traditions), with miasma associated with impotence (i.e. incompetence/ pollution) and Katharsis associated with vitality (competence/strength)” (Sridhar 2018, 2018, 178). As such, one’s problem with connecting to the divine could be the presence of miasma. However, it is important to emphasize that miasma is not a form of so-called “original sin,” nor does it indicate that the world of creation is inherently impure. For the former, we must understand that humans are understood as being naturally and inherently pure, with souls which are divine and descended from the Gods. For the latter, we must understand that, as Iamblichus tells us, the realm of divinities stretches from the One, the supreme first principle of existence which the Gods are unseparated from, all the way down to the lowest realm of material nature. Thus the material world we all reside in, as a creation of the divine, is inherently and fundamentally divine in-itself. It is Miasma, not the profane, that is the opposite of the Sacred.
So what exactly is the nature of miasma? Miasma results from transgressions against the Natural Law, which is called Themis. Themis is typically presented as the first wife of the Demiurge, the supreme creator God and King of Heaven, Zeus. Themis is present whenever Natural Law is upheld and sustained by practicing divinely prescribed behaviours; however, when Natural Law is disturbed or diverged, we weaken our own receptiveness to the benevolent light of the Gods, essentially blinding ourselves and putting us in “communion with spirits of punishment” (Sallustius XIV). Hence the retributive Goddess Nemesis arrives, manifesting whenever the natural order of our lives are disturbed “on the personal, familial, or social level” (Panopoulos, Pnadion & Tsantilas 2014, 74). The companion of Nemesis is Aidos, the Daimon of shame, and Her daughters are the Erinyes (Furies), who are the “anger and agents of miasma” (Madytinou, “Purification”). As Robert Parker remarks (Parker 1983, 107):
“[The Erinyes] may be understood as the animate agents of pollution [miasma] who embody . . . anger.”
Thus, miasma is “ultimately a tool of divine law that embodies the reciprocity of unlawful actions and the inevitability of righteousness and justice” (Madytinou, “Purification”).
Childbirth, menstruation, and natural death are all processes of generation which divert or disrupt the order of natural life that are tied with minor miasma (Guenther 2012, 250) (Panopoulos, Pnadion & Tsantilas 2014, 74). Other things which are miasmic typically pertain to the processes of generation which disrupt Natural Law, such as human blood, vaginal secretions, dirt, urine, feces, sexual fluids, sickness, etc. Making a mistake while performing a ritual or disrupting a ritual (in Latin called a vitium, or “defect, imperfection, impediment”) can cause that ritual to become void and also produce miasma. More severely, unjust actions that can be deemed hamartia, or sinful, can produce a far more harmful and negative miasma. These types of miasma are essentially bloodstains and require more substantial methods of purification to be effectively treated, and can come from any number of impious acts such as murder, kinslaying, parental incest, engagement in hubris, goetic practices such as witchcraft, and so on. However the miasma from any of these, whether the transgression which produced it be minor or major, must be treated through ritual methods of spiritual purification. Miasma is troublesome since, if left untreated, could cause a spiritual blindness that prevents us from being able to bear witness to the light of the Gods, thus causing rituals to become ineffective and ill fortune to fall upon us as we are blinded from the benevolent light of the Gods and instead put into communion with spirits of punishment (namely Nemesis and Her retinue of Daimons). This is worsened by how miasma is contagious, as certain events, actions, places, objects, and people in negative spiritual states can inflict and spread miasma upon other individuals, objects, or even places they come into contact with, including areas sacred to the Gods such as temples or altars. This spreading of miasma can harm society as a whole if left further untreated, weakening our connection to the divine and ultimately risks the risk of disasters– both natural and man-made.
As such, we can understand miasma as a type of spiritual dirt that is accumulated from merely living. And much like how you should not track mud throughout your friend’s house, you should not track spiritual dirt throughout the houses of the divine when trying to make communion with Them; and so we must maintain ritual purity to secure the presence of the divine within mortal society. In temple worship this is done through “the delineation of spatially distinct areas, whose ‘marked-off ’ character (i.e. their sacrality) is highlighted by physical markers (such as, especially, boundary stones) as well as by distinctive codes of conduct” (Frevel & Nihan 2012, 28). Such marked-off spaces are, however, always “precarious,” which accounts for the importance given to the performance of rituals of purification in Hellenism (Frevel & Nihan 2012, 28). Since the Gods are all-good and all-pure, we must respect Their purity, and so those who have been exposed to miasma in its various forms are prohibited from approaching the Sacred, such as altars, the precincts of a temple, or an image of a God, until the impurities have been sufficiently addressed and eliminated. And so a person or object is made pure through a process of ritual purification and cleansing called katharmos (Latin: piacula) (Guenther 2012, 247), laws defined by local sanctuaries which establish the appropriate behavior of a person entering a sacred precinct to engage in communion with the Gods by “pre-empt[ing] . . . the spread of possible miasmic contamination with general safety laws designed to ensure hygienic living conditions” (Madytinou, “Purification”) and thus increasing the “densification” of the sacred within the realm of the profane (Frevel & Nihan 2012, 28). While miasma refers to “any form of defilement or corruption” (Madytinou, “Purification”), Katharmos refers to the purifying rituals which expel the” corruption and discord of particular types of miasma, restoring the innate harmony of purity” (Madytinou, “Purification”) and hence consecrating once more that which was desecrated by miasma (Madytinou, “Purification”). Katharmos is of the utmost importance in the daily religious life of Hellenes alongside prayer and sacrifice, and to deviate from these rituals is a transgression of the Natural Law. As Homer writes (Homer Iliad, 6.266-8):
“…and with hands unwashed I would take shame to pour the glittering wine to Zeus; there is no means for a man to pray to the dark-misted son of Kronos, with blood and muck all splattered upon him.”
Thus the concern of miasma is as much related to hygiene as it is related to the competency to approach the divine. As Andreas Bendlin writes (Bendlin 2007, 178):
“Purity and pollution are two religious categories by means of which Greek religion enforces a religious world-view upon the daily lives of ordinary Greeks. Whenever they access the realm of the sacred (which is said to be pure), and when ever they return from a state of pollution to their ordinary lives, religion requires purification of them. Religious scruple about purity limits access to the divine; religious scruple interprets childbirth and death, menstruation, certain foods, or sexual intercourse as ritually polluting.”
As such, being clean of physical, spiritual and mental impurity is a vital part of the Hellenic religion. This can be seen from epigraphic evidence with respect to menstruation which Robin Osborne writes about in his book Women and Sacrifice in Classical Greece (Osborne 1993, 398):
“In fourth century Cyrene, in [the] late second-century Delos, and in [the] third-century Lindos, a man’s sexual contact with a woman, or contact with a woman giving birth, carried impurity; a sacrifice had to be made for [the] newly-wed women at Cyrene. Concern for impurity resulting from contact with other people seems in the Delian case entirely centred on women, with menstruation and miscarriage as the other polluting factors mentioned (along with eating fish and pork), but this is not always the case, for contact with dead relatives of either sex is considered a problem at Lindos and Cyrene.”
Bernhard Linke further details the importance of ritual purity in Hellenism as demonstrated in Roman temple worship (Linke 2012, 293):
“In Rome, there were also numerous occasions, in which the warranty or the restitution of ritual purity played a significant role. This applied to critical situations that might be caused by the death of a member of the community or by violations against sacral regulations and procedures. In such cases, purification rituals had to be performed. These expiatory actions were termed [in Latin] piacula and were designated to heal any breach of the sacral regulations. Possible offenses to be expiated by a piaculam were disruptions of prayers or sacrifices as well as violations of a feast day or neglect by a priest.”
However, the perception of purity and impurity is not merely confined to the worship of divinities in the temple, but is also relevant to the harmony and stability of society as a whole, affecting even the most mundane of activities. This societal harmony and stability is called the Peace of the Gods (Greek: Eirini Theon, Latin: Pax Deorum), and maintaining this peace is the central goal of the Roman religion, as it keeps us within the benevolent light of the Gods and safeguards our own collective welfare. Purification rituals also play a central function towards orienting society towards, and the preservation of, the Pax Deorum, whenever that state is considered to be potentially endangered (Frevel & Nihan 2012, 28).
A Suovetaurilia (sacrifice of a pig, a sheep and a bull) to Ares
For example, Linke provides numerous examples to show how the notion of purity-impurity informed various rituals that were periodically performed “to ensure the fertility of the fields and to prevent any pollution or sacral impairment” (Linke 2012, 294). One such example are the sacrificial rituals of purification performed all across the Hellenic world called “lustrationes.” The lustration is a broad type of simple ritual, during which the performer “carried a sacrificial animal in a circular procession around an object or a plot (most likely an agricultural plot) and the animal was then sacrificed at the end of the ritual” (Sridhar 2018, 199). The ritual could serve several purposes, such as the naming of a child, the ensuring of a field’s fertility by preventing any pollutive miasma that may endanger them, the founding of new cities, the healing of the soul from minor transgressions, and so on. Lustrations were performed circling parts of the city of Rome, such as its original borders (pomerium) around the Palatine Hill, as well as circling important officials within the imperial courts throughout the Graeco-Roman world (Sridhar 2018, 199). Another example of lustration was the ritual performed at the end of the Roman census. After “the census was completed and the real estate properties were registered anew, the newly constituted community of citizens was assembled and the censor would circumambulate them along with a pig, a sheep, and a cow, which would then be sacrificed to Mars [Ares]” (Sridhar 2018, 199). This instance of the ritual “not only aimed to revive the community’s connection with Mars [Ares], but it also meant to protect the fertility of the fields and attain future prosperity” (Sridhar 2018, 199) (Linke 2012, 294).
So, what can you do to be ritually pure before you start practicing? First of all, one could do a very basic hygienic thing: take a bath or shower before engaging in any type of ritual practice or before entering in any sacred space, such as the vicinity of a temple or near the altar. However, this is not enough if one wants to be in an adequate state of ritual purity. What one needs to do is create and use Khernips (Latin: aqua lustralis). Khernips is a lustral or holy water that is used to ritually wash one’s hands and face before entering a sacred space, such as an altar or the precincts of a temple, that is essential to use before performing any type of ritual. It is made out of the two fundamental elements most often used for purification purposes: Fire and Water. Fire is especially important as it’s used ritually to “cleanse, promote healing, and purify” (Panopoulos, Pnadion & Tsantilas 2014, 75). Khernips is very easy to make even at home. Here are instructions on how to make it:
- Get a bowl of water. Ideally sea water or flowing water, such as that of a river (Panopoulos, Pnadion & Tsantilas 2014, 75-76); however, these materials may understandably be unavailable to many. As such, home-made salt water or even simple tap water should suffice.
- Light on fire either some dried herbs (such as verbena or laurel), some incense, a torch, or even a dried leaf or twig on fire above the water and quench it in the water. Leaving them there is optional. When dropping it in the water you may say: “Xerniptosai,” or “Be purified.”
- Wash your hands with the water, then your face. You may say “Kherniptomai,” or “I wash with lustral water.”
- Sprinkle the area and all participants in the ritual with the khernips, saying “Apo pantos kakodaimones,” or “away, every evil spirit!” Alternatively, you can say “Hekas hekas este bebēloi,” or “begone, begone you profane!”
Khernips can also be used to cleanse an item, though to prevent contamination, it is recommended one sprinkles khernips over whatever it is one is trying to cleanse, as opposed to placing the object within the khernips.
Another way one could increase ritual purity is with incense. The two most popular forms of incense in the Graeco-Roman world were frankincense and myrrh (Figula 2018, “Incense”). Incense can be used in ritual by placing resins on burning charcoal, which can both be used as a means of purification by fumigation, or even be used as a sacrifice to the Gods in itself. Ritually, incense smoke and fragrance ascending to the heavens can be used as a way of communion with the divine, used as a means of communicating our prayers with Them (Verbanck-Piérard 2017, 1). Contemporary Roman polytheist Carmelo Cannarella comments on this thusly (Cannarella 2015, “Incense.”):
“Incense smoke rising into the sky is primarily an elevation, an act of transcendence, a moment of connection between the human and the Celestial Deities’ dimension: between Earth and Heaven … The spirals of smoke from incense are released into the air and fly to the sky. This flight of smoking represents the re-union with the Divine Dimension (both for the living beings and in funeral rites) and the flight itself symbolises the ‘freedom of movement’, the liberation from the material sphere, the transcendence of the world”
The healing properties of incense is backed by contemporary scientific studies, which suggest that both substances have a wide range of healing effects that activates poorly understood ion channels in the brain which help alleviate anxiety and depression (ScienceDaily 2019 September 3). Incense can thus help one in achieving a degree of mental purity required before approaching the Sacred.
Being of mental purity is a prerequisite for the performance of any ritual, as though the Gods are not seen by us, They can direct their divine gaze, which is more powerful than any light, towards us– even as far as our hidden thoughts (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, II 323). As such, one should approach the Gods with a well-disposed mind. Thoughts of incest, murder, kinslaying, adultery, sacrilege, or other impieties, are all considered impure states of mind that one should not be approaching the Gods with (so please, do not actively be thinking of Game of Thrones when you try worshiping the Gods). What one can do to purify their mind (nous) before approaching the divine is a self-preparatory prayer (Petrovic & Petrovic 2016, 48), akin to what Hesiod urges for in his Work and Days (Hesiod Work and Days, 737-41). Negativity in general can also be considered an impure state of mind to be approaching the Gods with. This is because the expected attitude and essential element when receiving the presence of the divine is happiness. This is because it is understood that the Gods live in an eternal state of perfect bliss and blessedness which Aristotle calls makariotes (Latin: beatitudo) (Bodéüs 1992, 117). This eternal state of happiness that the Gods live in is one of the many features that distinguish God from man (in addition to the Gods being immortal, immaculate, perfectly beautiful, all-powerful, etc). As such, happiness is an important value in Hellenism, especially in the context of our worship of the Gods. In order for humanity’s service of the divine to be complete, it must be completed in a joyful manner. Happiness is thus the most appropriate attitude when engaging in Their worship. In the ancient Hellenic world, this is why many religious festivals would frequently feature competitions and games, from sports to the theatrical performances of plays, and see public works raised dedicated to the benefit and/or entertainment of the people. It is also why music is frequent during many forms of ritual worship, and why the hymns are sung during processions and before the altar, rather than recited in monotone.
So if one has tried to approach the altars of the Gods without joy, then they are approaching the Gods wrong, and should not be surprised at any disconnect. Proper participation with the Gods requires blissful attitude. Do not pray in silence; play appropriate ritual music, and vocalize and sing the hymns loudly. Do not merely drag your feet to the altar; dance in procession. Do not wear dreary clothing; wear bright clothing appropriate for ritual. Do not provide the Gods sacrifice simply out of duty; sacrifice out of love, and look to the Gods as Sokrates had: not merely as your lords (despotai), but also as your ancestors (progonoi) (Plato, Euthydemus 302c-d). Embrace the Gods in happiness and look to the Gods as your family, for They are the reason for the birth of all the joys of this world, and Their presence deserves celebration. Worship of the Gods is meant to be a katharsis, not a chore.
The final point I wish to bring up is menstruation. However, before I do this, there is an elephant in the room that needs to be addressed: in the past, menstruation has been explicitly associated with women. However, as our understanding of menstruation develops, there is no reason to continue with this association. Continuing to associate menstruation with women does long term damage to both cis women and the trans community, especially health wise. Many women, even ones who are cis, do not menstruate; and menstruation can also happen both to men and those who are non-binary. As such, it is important to emphasize that menstruation happens to people who menstruate. When we discuss menstruation, we discuss the state of menstruation alone divorced from sex or gender identity, with respect to those who experience dysphoria, as that’s the only relevant thing. A further point to bring up is that this section has been written with the aid of various people who menstruate, from cisgender women to transgender men, who also come from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds.
In the West, public attitudes and discourse towards the process of menstruation tend to be divorced from any sacral dimensions (Sridhar 2018, 313). While the west reduces menstruation to a mere annoyance that is to be overcome, Hellenism sees the process as something that is sacred and associated with regeneration. Some might see these as opposites, ostensibly claiming the latter being a mere outdated superstition that taboos people who menstruate in opposition to a “modern understanding;” however, there is no reason that medical and scientific approaches to menstruation should come in the way of simultaneously sacralizing and celebrating it (Sridhar 2018, 314). This is especially true when looking to how the desacralization of menstruation to a mere annoyance has negatively affected people who menstruate, often alienating them from their bodies (Sridhar 2018, 315); which is more than clear in how most media represents and commercializes on menstruation, such as television ads or products which often promote language such as “staying free.” To remedy this, menstruation cannot be viewed merely as a biological process, but rather needs to also be understood with all of its cultural connotations. Instead of viewing Hellenic ideas on menstruation as mere irrelevant and negative superstition without even trying to comprehend it, we can instead understand it as something that is both compatible with the modern day and a positive thing which doesn’t taboo people who menstruate.
With the former, we can recognize that our contemporary situation is different from the past, and that times have changed. With the development of technology and growing accessibility of personal hygiene products, people are generally more clean now than they have been in the past, thus allowing for a greater degree of spiritual purity to be maintained also. By no means does this mean we should discard any notion regarding menstruation that has existed in the past; however, it shouldn’t be as much of an obstacle in societies with running water and showers. And with the latter, we can see the positivity in Hellenic understandings of menstruation in that it is ultimately a special privilege available only to people who menstruate that acts as a fundamentally beneficial period of rest, self-discipline, abstinence, asceticism, and self-purification (Sridhar 2018, 318). This is best summarized by Sridhar, who remarks on Hellenic views of menstruation within the 5th century CE Hellenic work Saturnalia by Macrobius (Sridhar 2018, 208):
“From Macrobius’ account, it is clear that although menstruation involved the removal of harmful substances from the body and hence the menstrual blood flow was associated with subtle miasma energies, the process itself was a purification process. . . Not only associated with [miasma] . . . but also as an austerity and self-purification process.”
Rather than seeing menstruation as a terrible blight, Hellenism properly understands menstruation as a sacred celebration; a natural and sacred process (Sridhar 2018, 208), associated with the Goddess Artemis (Latin: Diana) (Sridhar 2018, 179-186; 212-213), that is a temporary state of impurity that, by its very nature, serves as a means and time for austerity and self-purification (Sridhar 2018, 208). This makes menstruation unique among conditions of ritual contamination as katharsis and miasma become two complementary components of the process, rather than diametrically opposed forces. And so we can see that menstruation is an issue of ritual purity, not an issue of people who menstruate being somehow “inherently impure” or “morally bad.” As Kemetic and Mesopotamian polytheist and intersex person who menstruates Erra-Epirri writes (Erra-Epiri 28 March 2016):
“Even in today’s world, independent of any one religion’s considerations on the matter, blood that is outside the body is viewed as physically dirty and a potential contaminant. It leaves awful, stubborn stains. It’s a way that disease can and frequently does travel, and medically we have to treat all blood and other bodily fluids as if they are contaminated. And menstruation, while it’s just another part of life and isn’t a “morally bad” thing, is a just-plain-gross and deeply unpleasant physical experience.”
If you are a person who menstruates, you can embrace menstruation for what it is: a time of rest that only you and others who menstruate get the privilege to enjoy. One should ideally take a break from formal rituals and even chores, especially if the physical discomfort is too great. Rest as much as you can to prevent the spread of menstrual impurity. However, if an occasion cannot be left unobserved then extra purifications will be necessary. This is easier as we live in a society with running water and showers. Take the standard precautions to be ritually pure before engaging in practice or attending a service: shower, apply perfumes, change clothing, change into new pads or tampons, and so on. Before approaching any altar you should do the standard washing of your hands and face with khernips, as all should do, but to assure ritual purity you should double the purification and fumigate yourself with incense, too.
However, if you are in a situation during which you are unable to reach adequate levels of ritual purity during menstruation, or simply are too hindered by the cramps and general discomforts, but nonetheless wish to petition a God at a public sacred space then you should get a proxy to pray for you on your behalf, instead of doing it yourself in a sanctified space.
Engage in Praxis
After taking care of being spiritually pure enough to approach the Gods, one can then actually engage in the ritual practice of Their worship. This one seems obvious enough, but a significant people often have is that they just do not engage in the actual practice of worship enough, if at all. Some people might be preoccupied due to a busy work schedule. Some might be in the closet about their tradition due to their living situation, and thus struggle to find a way to practice devotional worship of the divine. Others might just be lazy and choose not to do rituals and sacrifices for some vague pseudo-reasons such as wanting to focus on “inward devotion,” or out of sheer arrogance. Regardless, a lack of performing sacrifices will no doubt explain some of the distance and perceived disconnect from the divine that some people may feel. After all, it is not enough to merely declare your belief in something without engaging with it on a deeper level. Aristotle’s ethical works inform us that three elements are necessary to successfully engage with philosophy and ultimately acquiring virtue (Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics, 10.9.1179b20ff) (Aristotle Eudemian Ethics, 1.1.1214al6ff):
- Physis: one’s disposition or natural ability
- Mathesis: one’s instruction/study
- Askesis: one’s actual practice of what they have learned
The last of which, askesis, often has its importance overlooked. Askesis can “equally well refer to going over one’s irregular verbs, if one is learning a language, or doing one’s training, if one is learning how to throw the javelin; but in the context of ancient philosophy, which was, after all, a bios, or “way of life,” as well as a body of doctrines, askesis could fairly be seen to refer to practices that might be regarded as “ascetic”” (Wimbush & Valantis 1998, 86). In short, one must apprise and express their doxa (beliefs) through praxis (practice). This is because our actions can have a positive or negative impact on the health of our souls. We can be sinful, or we can be virtuous. If I go out and without good reason murder someone in cold blood, this vice will negatively impact my soul. Conversely, if I go out of my way to spread virtue by donating to charities, volunteering to aid the homeless, helping the elderly cross the street, etc., this will spread the Good and have a positive impact on my soul, thus bringing me closer to the divine. As such, actions which imitate the divine, such as religious rituals, also cultivate virtue and thus have a good effect on one’s relationship with the Gods– especially because those who engage in praxis are going out of their way to actually engage with the Gods and their tradition beyond mere “thoughts and prayers.”
We must foremost acknowledge that the Gods are beyond us and need nothing, and we worship Them because They are beings worthy of worship, being so beyond us and responsible for all kinds of good and no evil. As a result of this, it can be understood that worship, prayer, and sacrifice aren’t given to the Gods to “appease” Them. The Gods are not angry with sinners, for to be angry would be to passion. The Gods do not rejoice- for what rejoices also grieves. Nor are They appeased by gifts – for if They were, They would also be conquered by pleasure (Sallustius, XIV). The Gods as perfect Beings, each being omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, who are always good, always do good and never do injustice. As perfect Beings the Gods are always in the same state eternally, and always like Themselves. In truth it is us who change and are affected, as when we are good we are joined with and cling onto the Gods as we are showing a likeness to Them by living according to virtue; but when we do sin and ignore the worship of the Gods we make the Gods our enemies – not because They are angered against us, but because our sins prevent the light of the Gods from shining upon us (Sallustius, XIV). By committing sin, we blind ourselves from Their light, and so if by prayers and sacrifices we find forgiveness of sins, we turn towards the divine, heal our own badness, and so again enjoy the eternal and infinite goodness of the Gods (Sallustius, XIV). To say that the Gods turn away from us is like saying that the Sun hides Himself from the blind. Because of this, it is to be correctly understood that we provide the Gods with worship ultimately for our own benefit, since the Gods already have everything and thus need nothing; and so it is us who benefits by gaining communion with Them through worship, where we expose ourselves to Their divine radiance and are thus brought closer to Their cleansing light (Sallustius, XIV). This is the overall purpose of sacrifice: to engage with the divine in an act of purity as a means of getting closer to Them. And so, by engaging in worship, we are brought into a closer relationship with the Gods, and thus brought into a stronger connection with Them.
This relates to the fundamental principle of all Hellenic ritual: do ut des, or “I give, so that you may give.” This is an economy of piety which is very much in the spirit of hospitality (xenía/ξενία). It is not about bribing a God, but rather it is about establishing a personal relationship with a God through a fundamental cycle of gift exchanging which is “not of strict indebtedness but rather where the God remembers the gift and is well disposed in the future” (Pulleyn 1999, 12), and thus brings us closer to their benevolent light. After all, since we receive everything from the divine, it is only right to pay back the givers some tithe of their gifts. Integral to the concept of do ut des is kharis (xάρις), meaning grace or reciprocity, which partakes in do ut des as the reputation of one’s reciprocity and relationship that they have with the divine (Burkert 1985, 189). Kharis is established and cultivated by practicing piety (Greek: Eusebia, Latin: Pietas), the actual practice of worshiping the divine by engaging in Their cultus, which indicates anything and everything regarding the worship of a particular divinity, from private devotion, to temples, to myths, to hymns and sacrifices, and so on. The reason the Gods deserve worship in the form of sacrifice is because They are the parents of all of us, being both the causes of our existence as well as its sustainers, and since we receive everything from the divine, it is only right to pay back the eternal givers some tithe of Their gifts.
To properly understand kharis, we must foremost understand that the divine are beyond us, being limitless and beyond all, and therefore whatever offerings we provide Them ultimately has no value to Them. However, it is a universal cultural assumption that when one is given a gift an obligation is simultaneously created. This gives rise to gift customs as a means of negotiating these obligations in the form of an answering gift being given back. The offering is a pretext for the God to offer us what the divine already offer: a pathway to henosis. We are brought closer to the divine with this cycle; not because the Gods are changing or we’re giving Them something which They don’t already have, but rather, we work together with the Gods to raise our souls upwards towards union, and for this, we are able to see Their light more clearly. Through sacrifice and offerings, we bring benefit to ourselves by getting closer to the Gods who cares for us all, for it is us who gains communion with Them, which allows us to be brought closer to Their cleansing light. And this is the overall purpose of sacrifice: to engage with the divine in an act of purity as a means of getting closer to Them, and eventually, achieving henosis. In short, the point in kharis is ultimately not which gifts you give, as the Gods do not need such gifts, but rather it is the act of giving: the act of back-and forth exchange. We can see a good analogy made by Patrick Dunn in his book The Practical Art of Divine Magic (Dunn 2015, 138-139): the act of offering is two polite people standing at an open door. “After you.”, “Oh no, after you.”, “No, I insist.” It is a back and forth exchange that, while useless for actually entering a building, is how our soul climbs back to its origin, the divine, as far as possible. With that, do ut des is an intimate part of theurgy, i.e., ritual practice. It is not bribing a God, nor is it merely for personal gain. Instead, it is getting closer to a God and working with Them to achieve a common goal, henosis, by establishing a personal relationship with them which allows the individual to vertically align themselves with the divine.
So, when you find the time, perhaps try taking a deep dive into devotion. There are literally so many things that you can do to develop a sincere connection with the Gods. Do some things that bring the religion outside of mere belief and into something you do– something that is animated and alive. Think, when was the last time you did a ritual? If it’s been awhile, consider doing a big one this time. Begin celebrating holidays and festivals. Listen to devotional songs and prayers. Watch films and documentaries on Hellenic religion and civilization. Try religious fasting as a method of purification before ritual. Maybe, if you’re lucky, find a group to engage in communal worship with, or even visit a temple if you can. At the very least, do something as often as you can. Perform scheduled daily worship such as the daily prayer cycle. And if you’re just beginning, know that it is okay if it feels awkward. Continue to go through with it anyways. After all, it is new, and anything that is new is going to feel awkward at first as it’s totally unfamiliar to you. So remember that this awkwardness isn’t bad. It’s the same awkwardness one feels when they are getting accommodated to learning a new game for the first time; of course you’re not going to play astoundingly for the first few rounds, but that doesn’t mean you should just give up and never bother with it again. Continue your religious practice and do not let the initial awkwardness of beginning something new defeat you; push through it and slowly expand the boundaries of your comfort zone by starting small and allowing yourself to spiritually develop and grow from there. Even merely performing a modest prayer in the morning alongside the sacrifice of some incense can cultivate kharis greatly and take you a long way. Some days you may be able to engage in more praxis than others, but the more bricks you lay, the more kharis you will cultivate, which will ultimately increase your spiritual awareness.
The Hellenic tradition is very clear that even “mundane” things are not totally divorced from the divine. Such a separation from the divine simply cannot exist, and talking of a total separation from the divine would be like saying that one is totally separated from gravity; even though the axiomatic sub-law of gravity, dictated by the natural law of physics, is always-present throughout the cosmos. One can choose to believe or disbelieve in gravity, sure; however, the law of gravity will be ever-present, operative and effecting you and everything else regardless. Gravity is unforgiving in its unalterably fixed functioning; you can weaken its pull on yourself by creating a greater distance between you and the object with larger mass, however, the function of gravity is ever present throughout the entire process. Likewise, the existence of the Gods is axiomatic, and Their activities are always immanent and all-pervasive throughout the entire kosmos, as it is Them who illuminates and gives life to all of creation. When you feel distance from the Gods, you are not experiencing a total absence of them, but rather what has truly happened is that your receptiveness to Their benevolent light has changed. Like how you are always surrounded and affected by gravity, the Gods’ immanence means that you are always surrounded by and present among the divine at any given point; it is merely up to you to notice and acknowledge this connection that already exists, and strengthening it. And because any of your actions or objects you come into contact with can directly affect the health and purification of your soul, everything should be treated as having spiritual/ritual significance. As such, one can recontextualize an otherwise “mundane” activity as an extra-devotional activity that doesn’t need to be strictly scheduled in advance. If one feels distance from Zeus, perhaps go spend an afternoon spreading virtue and promoting xenia by volunteering at a poorhouse. If one feels a distance from Aphrodite, perhaps one could pick up a collection of poems by Sappho and read it through as a devotional act. Perhaps consider reading books one enjoys outloud to the Gods at your altar, even if they are without any specific religious significance, just to share in the experience with the divine. These acts will also help you build kharis.
Change Your Routine
Sometimes during regular worship one might be unable to help but feel as if they are stuck in the same routine every day and are merely going through the motions. During these times you must ask yourself: are you sacrificing an offering because that’s what you do every night, or are you sacrificing because you are thinking about the Gods and want to offer them something in thanks, love, and appreciation? Sure, a formal scheduled system is excellent and can help immerse one into regular worship and a relationship with the Gods; however, sometimes one might catch themselves burning incense or pouring libations simply because of mere habit, devoid of any real sense of purpose behind it.
When one finds themselves in this situation, it is recommended that they can change up their worship’s schedule and routine. One can combat these times of disconnection by changing some parts of their regular worship. The change can be something big, such as changing up the offering that one is sacrificing. Changing what you are sacrificing is a great way to prevent your practice from feeling more like a chore. Are there different types of incense you would like to try sacrificing? Perhaps Ianos might enjoy maple syrup, or maybe Zeus-Helios would enjoy a ham sandwich? Try providing a God with new offerings and determine if They approve of it through divination. This can help inform one’s Personal Gnosis and with that individualize one’s practice, making your relationship with the Gods more unique and personal. However, the change can also be something minor. This can be as simple as rearranging one’s space of worship so that when you approach the altars to make offerings, you’ve got something new to look at, which forces one to be more attentive of the ritual space and actively think about the Gods.
Another step for engaging in praxis is spreading Virtue (Greek: Arete, Latin: Virtus). As already stated, Aristotle informs us that askesis, the actual practice of one has learned, is the final step necessary to truly engage with philosophy and ultimately cultivate virtue (Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics, 10.9.1179b20ff) (Aristotle Eudemian Ethics, 1.1.1214al6ff). This is important because the Gods are the very sources of virtue. We can thus conclude that to connect with the Gods, one must integrate the virtues They spawn, and actualize virtue and its cultivation, justice, in human society; for by this connection is how we best know Them. Much like how in Plato’s Republic the individual who escapes the cave willingly descends back to try freeing those still trapped inside (Plato Republic, VII 516e-517a), those of us who are servants of the Gods and are more fortunate than others should willfully cooperate with the divine to promote well-being and virtue among humankind as a whole, and accomplish efforts which brings benefits to humanity, so we may collectively be brought into greater harmony with the divine world (i.e., the Peace of the Gods/Eirini Theon/Pax Deorum). We cannot be opposed to helping the vulnerable, because otherwise we are failing in our task to serve the Gods. By putting virtue into practice and spreading it among men, we truly cultivate kharis.
Jupiter and Mercury at Philemon and Baucis by Peter Paul Rubens, 1620-1625.
After all, as the divine Emperor Julian asks, “[how could] the man who worships Zeus the God of Comrades, and who, though he sees his neighbours in need of money, does not give them even so much as a drachma, how, I say, can he think that he is worshipping Zeus aright?” (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, II 305). How, the divine Emperor further asks, could one inhospitable to strangers who “wishes to sacrifice to Zeus, the God of Strangers [Zeus Xenios], even approach his temple?” (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, II 305). Singing hymns of praise to the divine while simultaneously turning a blind eye to strangers or the ill fortunate is sacrilege– a clear violation of Xenia, the Hellenic virtue which entails hospitality to strangers and the ill-fortunate. And integral to Xenia is Theoxenia– which entails that a God can assume any form, even that of a foreigner. As such, one must be polite, kind and respectful to everyone, regardless of their appearance, origin, language or manner, as you never know when the beggar on the street is actually a God. This is because, as the Emperor Julian says, “it is to the humanity in a man that we give, and not to his moral character” (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, II 303). And this common humanity lies within all of us. The divine Plato writes that the closest embodied thing to the Gods is the human form (Plato Timaeus, 44d), and it is written by the divine Julian that when the common father and King of the All, Zeus, was setting all things in order, there fell from Him drops of sacred blood, and from these drops of divine blood arose the race of man (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, II 307). It, therefore, follows that we are all kin, as the Gods tell us through Plato, and that we are all descended from the Gods– and thus all common members of the same family: that of the supreme Zeus’ (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, II 307). And because every man is, whether they like it or not, “akin to every other man” (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, II 305), it thus follows that the virtues of xenia and philanthropia are, in truth, inseparable. Therefore, to properly worship Zeus, the common father of all, and the Gods under Him, we must be helpful and care for those of us who are less prosperous than others, regardless if they are different or foreign. And by promoting this virtue, we are able to collectively bring ourselves closer to and strengthen our connection with the Gods.
Acknowledge the Gods as Truly Real
Part of worshiping the Gods is acknowledging that They have a true, real existence who, as eternal Beings who have created and eternally maintain the existence of the universe, are inherently worthy of ritual observance and devotion. This acknowledgement is not a mere option in Hellenism; it is a necessity. Understanding the reality and agency of the Gods is also understanding that the worship of the divine is meaningful. After all, the entire point of ritual practice is so we can engage in do ut des, the establishment of a personal relationship with a God based on a reciprocal relationship of gift exchanging. For this to happen, however, there needs to be a real God one is engaged in a reciprocal relationship with– a real entity with agency on the other line. Because, after all, one cannot engage in a personal relationship based on the exchange of gifts with something that lacked agency, or even with simply nothing; otherwise one is not engaging in do ut des. And if do ut des is divorced from the act of sacrifice, then sacrifice simply becomes a pointless action. After all, if one was convinced that the Gods had no agency or outright did not exist, then why engaging in ritual practice when your acts would be accomplishing nothing? Of course, the precise nature of the Gods’ existence has always been subject to intense debate and speculation, leading to various philosophical schools of thought that developed throughout the ancient world with their own theories on the nature of the divine. However, the existence of the Gods Themselves, as well as the effectiveness of rituals in the cultus’ that the Gods promote, was and is never up to debate in Hellenism. This is because these things are not things we merely have “belief” (doxa) in, but are rather things that we acknowledge, as Their existence is an axiomatic fact irrespective of any belief. As the divine Iamblichus says (Iamblichus De Mysteriis, I.3):
“We should not accept, then, that this[, the existence of the Gods,] is something that we can either grant or not grant, nor admit to it as ambiguous (for it remains always uniformly in actuality), nor should we examine the question as though we were in a position either to assent to it or to reject it; for it is rather the case that we are enveloped by the divine presence, and we are filled with it, and we possess our very essence by virtue of our knowledge that there are Gods.”
This is echoed by prominent contemporary polytheist P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, who writes (Lupus, 11 February 2019):
“If such individual volitional non-corporeal consciousnesses exist, however, and humans can access them, then it is no longer a matter of “belief” in the sense just described, but instead acknowledgement. One need not “believe in” gravity in order for it to impact every waking moment of one’s existence; but (and this is a fair point) likewise knowing it exists and understanding it doesn’t necessarily give one a preferred position in dealing with it–having a degree in physics will not prevent you from falling off a building, for example, so one cannot push such a conceit too far where devotion to Deities (being predicated upon acknowledgement of Their existence) is concerned.”
And so a Hellene is not to simply “believe” in Zeus, as if His existence were something that was up to any debate or speculation. He just exists. You do not merely “believe” that one must properly perform a particular ritual to maintain the ritual order– you know that this ritual must be properly performed. You do not merely “believe” in these things, they’re simply just how things are and blunt facts of life. We know that the Gods exist, and understand that the way we engage with Them is through do ut des. Refusal to acknowledge the existence of the Gods not only makes ritual practice entirely pointless, but it is a grave impiety that can ultimately bring harm to oneself. Such an impiety can cause a miasma that directly harms the soul of the individual, as it blinds oneself from the benevolent light of the divine. Part of approaching the Gods in ritual purity is acknowledging Their real, true existence. As Marcus Tullius Cicero writes (De Natura Deorum, II.LXVII):
“Mala enim et impia consuetudo est contra deos disputandi, sive ex animo id fit sive simulate.
For the habit of arguing in support of denying the existence of Gods, whether it be done from conviction or in pretense, is a wicked and an impious practice.”
There are times, however, when might be plagued with doubt, even when they try to engage in the Hellenic religion in earnest. They might even begin to develop a guilt over this, and it may begin to weigh on them and clog their mind, preventing them from any real progress. In such a situation, you must first breath, and then acknowledge that what matters is the present moment. It is how you are acting now is what is important. And “once you have acknowledged this, you must realise that you have nothing to be guilty for, and that even if you did, neither you nor the Gods are served by your guilt. You and the Gods are both served by your present actions, your current love, faith, devotion, and joyful life” (magpiegoo 3 June 2019). “You’re in control of yourself; you can absolutely refrain from going on about the Gods not existing. You are in control of your own words, so control them” (hrafnblod 20 December 2017). At least momentarily suspend such skepticism and put it to the back of your mind. Do not even put such notions into any active thought as you approach the divine with a pure mind. Start engaging in practice and build that ritual relationship. Allow yourself to be taken in and embraced into the religion naturally. Even if it feels very awkward at first, continue to go through with it if engaging in worship makes you feel positive; even if it’s as subtle as a gentle warm fuzzy feeling or a happy light buzz. Push on and continue to practice, as this means you are on the right path. Like any person who is new to the religion, you should start your practice small and gradually expand your boundaries as you grow more and more comfortable with it. This is where engaging in praxis can truly help oneself if one is trying to enter the tradition with sincerity. It is always important, however, to keep one’s expectations of what one will experience within reason.
Fix Your Expectations
Sometimes, one can have colossal expectations when they engage in practice, and when life does not live up to one can begin to think that there is a “distance” between them and the divine. The actuality is often that it is they themselves who create the feeling of distance solely because they have set themselves up for it. When the divine manifests, it will likely not be a big booming voice in the sky. We must understand that though the Gods’ activities are immanent throughout the kosmos and are what animate it, Their presence is usually far more subtle. One must be oriented in a proper direction so to have reasonable expectations, which is to say one should be without any expectations at all. Don’t worship expecting curious things to happen or auspicious signs to manifest as that is not the point of worshiping the Gods. The point of worshiping the Gods is developing a personal relationship based on love and centered around a cycle of gift exchanging with the divine. Yes, auspicious signs could potentially occur during worship, such as a spider crawling onto my altar after praying to Athena for help with an exam in a few hours, or thunder rolling after singing the Orphic Hymn to Zeus; however, these gifts and nods from the divine are exceptional experiences, and these should not be expected to be standard. Again, the presence of the Gods is like gravity: it is ever-present, always here and eternally active; however, we aren’t always actively aware of it. You should not expect to experience grand encounters, but maybe a slight buzz at best.
Theophanies & Knowing Thyself
Death of Semele by Peter Paul Rubens, 1577-1640.
However, there are times where a God might manifest in an incredible way. This is not as indirect as the roar of thunder after singing a hymn to Zeus, but rather far more explicit: a theophany, the explicit “appearance, arrival or felt presence of a deity” (Luck 2006, 508). To understand theophanies, we must first understand that the Gods, as Beings posterior to everything, are unmoved and unaffected by humans. Experiencing a theophany isn’t seeing the unbridled essence (ousia) of the Gods, as the Gods’ essence are in every way far beyond what any mortal could handle, exemplified when Semele bore witness to the full form of King Zeus and was incinerated by the flames of His power. Neither are these forms constructed by the “psychic power” of the medium, nor are they generated out of matter “taken from (existing) organisms,” like the medium’s body or the bodies of sacrificed animals (Dodds 1973, 205), as a lower being cannot generate a higher one (Iamblichus De Mysteriis, III.22). In truth, as the essence of the Gods eternally lays totally beyond us at the summit of existence, Their bodies within our mundane cosmos are completely ruled from the outside, as opposed to us mortals where our bodies are ruled by souls which lie within. As such, during a theophany, “the God is not moved by us or affected by us, but rather we become open for some reason to participating Them” (EPButler, 2 July 2019 7:33 PM). The divine Proclus tells us a great deal of theopathy (Proclus In Republic, 1.39.1ff), detailing that the “materialization” of immaterial divine beings is not the God themselves, but rather an emanation from them which is “partly mortal, partly divine” (Luck 2006, 215), and even this we do not see with our physical eyes but rather with the eyes of our soul (Dodds 1973, 205) in accordance to the principle “like is perceived by like” (Luck 2006, 215). The flesh of these bodies is a completely exotic substance that is immortal, usually invisible to us unless a God chooses otherwise, and nourished by divine substances like ambrosia. It is important to keep in mind, however, that theophanies tend to be directly tied to ritual and initiation, which have divine origins as the Gods are the very source of Their own cultus, and play a role of actively advocating for it (Lankila 2016, 150). An example of ritual theophany occurred with Maximus of Ephesus at the Temple of Hekate in the city of Ephesus. Following the burning of incense and the singing of a hymn, the statue of the Goddess was animated and began to smile and laugh out loud as the torches in Her hands were set ablaze (John Granger Cook 2000, 278). However, as the Gods have agencies of Their own; They can manifest however, wherever and whenever They please, also demonstrated by the divine Julian in 363 CE after he became an Emperor when he took the route to Mount Kasios to bear witness to the early dawn and provide sacrifice to Zeus. During this hike the sun rose, and in broad daylight, Julian “saw the God and after seeing him… received advice” (Libanius, Or.18.172). It is here that Zeus, “[as] one of the immortals descended from heaven, took [Julian] by the hair, spoke to him, and after listening to [Zeus’] answer [Julian] departed” (Libanius, Or.18.172).
However, there are people who experience a theophany, and seemingly paradoxically, thereafter feel a distance from the divine. Instead, they are left craving for more. One may find it addictive in a sense, because once one experience such a blissful experience such as a theophany, they will want another. You want that direct connection to the divine to be at that constant intensity. And that’s understandable– it’s hard to not want it again– but it’s not reasonable. One must listen to the Delphic Maxim of “Know Thyself” and remember that you are merely human, and that those experiences happened. They are set in stone. You cannot go back in time and redo them, nor can they be undone. Take it a step at a time. Sometimes people will experience several theophanies in their entire life. Sometimes people will only experience but one theophany. And sometimes people will experience none. These experiences are not meant to be happening constantly. If they did, they would not be distinct.
Beauty & Love reflected by Knowing Thyself & Surrender
It shouldn’t be surprising that those who gloat that they do not bow before the Gods, or even people who foolishly believe that they are equal with the Gods, often struggle with a lack of connection with the divine. In such a case, these individuals are flaunting Hubris (Latin: Superbia), a type of hamartia (sin) of insolence, arrogance, or exaggerated pride which blinds them with a miasma that prevents them from embracing the benevolent light of the divine. The Oracle at Delphi had the inscription “Know Thyself,” something often taken to be an exhortation to contemplation. However, it also served as a warning: know that you are human, not a God. Do not strive to be a God. This type of arrogance makes hubris one of the greatest sins: attempting to become what one is not. As Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa writes, “engagement with the Gods begins with humility and gratitude, and a recognition of what is finite and what is Infinite” (Ptahmassu, 1 July 2019 11:15 AM). We must surrender to Them by displaying Aidos (Latin: Pudicitia), meaning shame, humility, modesty, etc., so we may find our proper place within the cosmos as servants of the Gods. As Edward Butler writes, surrender to the Gods is “simply the human condition, whether we acknowledge it or not. Just as the very passivity of the Gods is itself activity, our very activity is itself passivity relative to Them” (EPButler, 1 July 2019 3:07 PM). And it is through our surrender to the divine that we can ultimately be brought closer to Them, and through that, find liberation.
We can begin to understand this by looking to the Chaldean Oracles, the ipsissima verba or very words of the Gods. Here, the Gods tell us that Eros, or Love, is a primordial power, and the first creation of the creator of all, the Demiurge, Zeus. Following the creation of Eros, the King of All then creates the part of the soul that is immortal, the Rational Soul (Chaldean Oracles, fr. 39), and fills each soul with a “deep eros” to, eventually, bring them back to the Gods (Chaldean Oracles, fr. 43). This means that what part of the soul the Supreme Creator creates is, ultimately, filled with an eternal Love. Meanwhile, the divine Plato tells us in his Timaeus that the Gods serving the Demiurge have the task of creating all that is mortal in the human soul, the Irrational Soul. These notions are together reflected in the Orphic myth of the six-generation succession of kings, which recounts how mortals are born out of a mix of the ashes of the rational Lord Dionysos and the irrational Titans who tried to destroy Him. As such, mortals share a two-fold Dionysiac-Titanic nature. On one hand we all have one irrational “Titanic” soul, which “is contributed to us [later on] from the circuit of the heavenly bodies” (Iamblichus De Mysteriis, VIII.6) and gives rise to everything mortal in the soul; hence accommodating and inclining itself to the material cycle of generation (Iamblichus De Mysteriis, VIII.6). On the other hand, we each have one rational soul which comes from the highest vaults of heaven and that is created by and “partak[es] of the power of the Demiurge [the supreme creator Zeus]” (Iamblichus De Mysteriis, VIII.6, 321) and filled with a “deep eros [love],” longing for its eternal father, and so its nature accommodates and inclines itself towards the immaterial realm of the divine; its nature transcending the material realm of generation (Iamblichus De Mysteriis, VIII.6). So it is to be recognized that while humans are not Gods, our souls, our truest selves, are among the ranks of the divine: the last of the Greater Kinds, the spiritual entities which rank below the Gods. To reclaim and recognize that divine part is to, indeed, know thyself, and the theurgist must always guard against hubris.
The fact that Zeus fills our divine selves with Eros is no minor detail. The blessed Plutarch comments on the importance of Eros in the dialogue Amatorius, where he writes that it is through Eros by which Orpheus is able to move Plouton to allow the soul to become free from death (Plutarch Moralia, Amatorius 17.761F / Trans. by HellenicGods.org):
“that alone of the Gods, Hades considers the prescriptions of Love [Eros]”
Thus, it is through the divine rational soul, with its potency to Eros, that we may attain to the “emancipation from fate and ascent to the . . . Gods” (Iamblichus De Mysteriis, VIII.6).
To understand how, we must also understand the nature of Kalon, or Beauty. Kalon can be used to describe a fine work of art, or the beauty of a face; however, Kalon is an understanding of beauty that also goes beyond mere conceptions of material beauty. For example, virtues such as wisdom are described as kalon (Plato Symposium, 204b). In the dialogue, the Greater Hippias, the divine Plato puts forward the idea of Beauty being an Intelligible Form.
The Forms are an integral part of metaphysics, representing elements of idealized, archetypal, or divine reality. For instance, there is a Form of Virtue, Wisdom, and Justice, and these Forms are these things in their truest form. Human virtue, wisdom, and justice as seen in our material realm are but mere shadows of the Forms, instead participating in them to varying degrees. For example, if someone is just, it is because they participate in the Form of Justice. When someone is wise, it is because they participate in the form of Wisdom, etc. The Forms, while ultimately originating from the highest Intelligible Realm, are only realized and found when the Demiurge and Divine Mind (Nous), Zeus, realizes the Forms and brings them to life in the realm below the Intelligible, the Intellective Realm. The Forms are, in short, truly real and existent things (Plato Greater Hippias, 287d), rather than merely metaphorical or psychological constructs. So as a Form, Beauty is understood as having an existence outside of any beautiful thing. Instead, everything that has beauty (i.e., everything to some degree) participates the Form of Beauty, and it is this way we know by which degrees things are beautiful (Plato Greater Hippias, 286d). And so the Forms, which participate the Form of Beauty, are beautiful, and as such anything and everything ontologically posterior to (i.e., coming into being after) the Forms also contains some amount of beauty.
However, the Form of Beauty holds a unique position among the Forms. Plato’s Symposium describes wisdom, which is itself the product of a Form, as beautiful. This explicitly implies that Beauty is somehow greater than, or ontological prior to, Wisdom; otherwise, Wisdom would have no need to participate in Beauty as it apparently does. Furthermore, in the Phaedrus (Plato Phaedrus, 250 b-d), Plato discusses how unlike all the other Forms, “only the Form of Beauty is sensibly revealed, and therefore it is Beauty that instigates man’s anamnesis [memory] of the Gods” (Shaw 2014, 185).
The reason Beauty is superior is due to its connection to the Good. This connection is found in the nature of beautiful things also being beneficial or good (Plato Greater Hippias, 286d):
Socrates: So we reach the conclusion that beautiful bodies and beautiful rules of life, and wisdom, and all the things we mentioned just now, are beautiful because they are beneficial?
Socrates: Then it looks as if beauty [kalon] is the beneficial, Hippias.
In essence, only when things are also beneficial or good are they beautiful. Because Beauty is connected to the Good, i.e., the One, which in its lowest extreme is located at the height of the Intelligible Realm as Aion, Beauty is therefore superior to all other Forms. And Plato’s Timaeus gives us a clue as to what is the most beautiful: in describing the creation of the physical world, the Timaeus says the Demiurge, intending “to make this world like the fairest and most perfect of intelligible beings” (Plato Timaeus, 30d), creates the “Essential Living Being” (Iamblichus In Timaeus, fr. 43), or the Whole Soul, in the likeness of the Gods and the Good, who reside in the highest vaults of the kosmos: the Intelligible Realm. The Whole Soul, as an image of the beauty of the Intelligible Realm, and as a direct creation of the Demiurge, is the most beautiful of things, as are everything that is contained within it, which Iamblichus tells us is “all the other living beings” (Iamblichus In Timaeus, fr. 43). This means that the most beautiful of all things in creation are us, living beings, i.e., souls.
Beauty is, overall, of obvious great importance. After all, it’s directly connected to the Good. Reaching the Form of Beauty ultimately means reaching the divine realm. However, individually, beauty is disconnected from us, and without a way to obtain it then it ultimately can serve no function. How, then, does one obtain it? The answer is Eros , the primordial Love from the divine which resides in all of our immortal and divine Rational souls.
Of course, there are degrees of Eros. Eros can have a “lower” degree because it has a generative procreative function, a longing “for the conception and generation that the beautiful effects” (Plato Symposium, 206e-207a). This is the type of Eros that is inspired by a beloved person. It is this lower Eros that is tied with romantic ideas and the urge for sex. However, Eros has a secondary function which relates to a higher transcendent function: its desire for beauty and goodness, which in turn leads people to them. This desire implies that Eros lacks beauty and goodness to some extent, since nothing desires what it already has; only that which it lacks. Eros desires, and thus lacks.
So, because living things are the most beautiful things, when Eros is centered on the spirit it thus has a love of Kalon, or Beauty, that will be directed towards its source: the realm of the divine, where the Form of Beauty itself resides, as far as possible (Plato Symposium, 211c-d). Only when Kalon is connected to Eros can beauty be obtained, and only when beauty is obtained through love are we led heavenbound, towards our divine source. This is the means by which we achieve liberation because Eros is love, and naturally, we want to hold on to the object of our love for as long we can. To grasp the Good and hold onto it is to render the soul immortal (Plato Symposium, 206e-207a). True spiritual development will flourish when one who loves the divine asks, “when will I finally be with that object which I love?”
By what means then can the soul, filled with Love [Eros] and longing for Beauty [Kalon], reach it then? The answer is through Virtue (Greek: Arete, Latin: Virtus). Virtue is “an indivisible Form” (Kupperman 2014, 41), and thus participates in the Form of Beauty. Jeffrey S. Kupperman writes that (Kupperman 2014, 41):
“While many things may participate virtue, and the virtues, virtue remains undivided, simultaneously existing in everything that participates it [i.e., ontologically posterior to it, or coming into being after]. Coming from the divine realm, virtue has no beginning or end, and exists outside of time. Virtue is also unchanging. Although the ways beings participate it, and so express virtue in the world, may vary, virtue itself remains the same.”
Having its origins within the divine realm, virtue is eternal, without beginning or end, and hence always available to be attained. There are many ways to participate in virtue, however, Kupperman tells us what the chief of these ways are (Kupperman 2014, 41):
“Virtue is gained not simply through practice, which exists on the level of generation, but through contemplation and, at its highest levels, theurgy.”
So it is through theurgy, i.e., the worship of the divine, that we that we achieve salvation. When we turn Eros towards generation, the sources of inspiration are the beloved persons, but when we turn Eros towards spirit and thus heavenwards, the sources of inspiration are things of theurgic importance: the Gods, and everything Their worship entails.
In short: Kalon is connected to knowing thyself: understanding the inherent divinity of your soul, which is among the most beautiful of all things. Eros is connected to surrender: recognizing our place in the kosmos as divinities under the Gods who are filled with their love, and through this turn this love back towards Them through theurgy, which is ritual worship. When we worship the Gods out of love, the soul is attracted towards its liberation: the ascending of the soul to its original source, the divine. This liberating process of salvation is called many things. In popular religion it is called apotheosis, “making into a God.” To the divine Plato it is called homoiōsis theō, “becoming like a God” (Plato, Theaetetus 176b). More frequently by Late Antiquity, however, Platonists called it henosis, meaning “union with the One.” Henosis is when the soul rejoins the bliss, wisdom and eternal perfection of its source, participating in the divine intelligibles, and through purification being gradually assimilated into the divine. It is the “end (telos, or goal) of life which is to be attained by knowledge (gnosis)” (Uždavinys 2004, 300). This gnosis, which Iamblichus tells us “is virtue and wisdom and perfect happiness, and makes us like to the gods” (Protrep. 3)” (Uždavinys 2004, 300)” is not “a single experience or understanding but rather a continuum stretching from the depths of the natural cosmos to the One itself” (Theourgia.org Catechism, 80). Gnosis is both acquired and given in that the theurgist must make real changes in themselves in order to become more like the divine, and that the divine is an active participant in the receiving of gnosis. It is union with the divine, from the Personal Daimon to the highest reality in the universe, the One, during which a Rational Soul becomes a Purified Soul, fully realizing its inherent divinity. During this the Purified Soul’s free will becomes ““fixed” in that the soul no longer needs to deliberate through discursive reasoning what actions to take,” and as such for a Purified Soul “proper moral activity is known intuitively through gnosis” (Theourgia.org Catechism, 93).
Absolute union with the One is impossible. The soul is unique and individual, coming from and participating in Nous (The Divine Mind/Demiurge, Zeus). The soul is distinct from the One as it is not pre-essential to the kosmos. The Gods have souls, but these are controlled externally, as the Gods’ existence (hyparxis) is beyond any substance (ousia) within our kosmos. In contrast to this, we mortals are souls. As such we are locked in our ontological position as the lowest of divine beings. Henosis isn’t the obliteration of the psyche (i.e., the soul/the self) in union with the One. The soul is always itself: a particular soul with unique Being (Ousia), Powers, and Activities. Simultaneously the soul isn’t solitary; it’s still one part of a greater whole that it participates in. Thus henosis isn’t the merging of the soul into all this, but rather through rituals of purification that allows the soul to realize its own divine self, it is to find its place within it, which is called demiurgy, the end result of theurgy. By remembering its unique self, the soul both comes to understand the activity proper to it and willfully engages in demiurgy in alignment with its natural place in existence
At the death of the one who is liberated, Lord Plouton will break our corporeal bonds and lift us upwards towards divine union. The Purified (Rational) Soul is brought into union with the World Soul, and the Irrational Soul separates from the body and becomes a Shade in the realm of Haides. A good index here is the case of Herakles, whose Shade inhabits Haides, while His immortal Soul resides among the divine Olympians and has been married to Hebe, been adopted by Hera, and so on. This part of Herakles is a wholly perfected soul, and hence does not undergo reincarnation. Such a soul does not descend again, at least, not in this world period– even theurgic sages such as Empedokles and Pythagoras recall previous incarnations, and expect future ones.
Apollo’s enchantment by Henry Howard, 1807
Art, which includes visual art (e.g., drawing, animation, graffiti, video, painting, sculptures, architecture, and many more), music, literature, and so on, can be one of the methods taken help connect oneself to the Gods. This is because, as Sallustius writes, “the providence of the Gods reaches everywhere and needs only some congruity for its reception,” and “all congruity comes about by representation and likeness” (Sallustius, XV). For this reason, “the temples are made in representation of heaven, the altar of earth, the images of life (that is why they are made like living things), the prayers of the element of though, the mystic letters of the unspeakable celestial forces, the herbs and stones of matter, and the sacrificial animals of the irrational life in us” (Sallustius, XV). As such, one can use devotional art as a means of better strengthening their connection to the divine. Perhaps listen to music performed by Daemonia Nymphe, or observe paintings and statues produced by the pious. Very importantly, one can use icons in their worship of the Gods. After all, like a picture of a loved one, you cherish the image because it holds the essence of who is depicted, not for the material that it is made out of. When an icon of a God is created, that same essence is cherished and worshiped. It is not the material of the icon that is venerated, but rather it is the essence that emanates from the icon which evokes the God that is worshiped and praised. It is by invoking this presence that the icon makes it easier to concentrate and focus on the Gods, allowing us to connect ourselves to the divine.
Asides from merely making use of the art others have produced in your worship, one could also actually create art as a form of devotional worship. In Orphic-Platonic Hellenism, the production of art, even imitative art, is ultimately an activity of phantasia, or imagination (Finberg 1926, 150), which is a process which Plotinus tells us has an intelligible aspect which works with the eternal Forms and logoi; this means that creating art can bring you closer to the eternal Form of Beauty, and with that closer to the divine realm so far as possible (Plotinus The Enneads, V.8, 410-11). As such, creating fine art can help you find a new direction and get you back on track on your path towards God. One could, thus, create devotional works of the Gods and other spiritual Beings that have created or inhabit our world as a means of connecting to the divine. One doesn’t have to be a professional with any sufficient “formal training” to create art, nor do they have to even be exceptionally good. The more you engage in producing art, the more you will naturally refine your skills and enhance your own ability. Perhaps one could compose devotional literature dedicated to the Gods, such as hymns, songs and poetry. Or perhaps one could try visual arts, such as painting or drawing. I personally highly recommend looking at Andrew Loomis’ works when it comes to learning how to draw. If you are using a drawing tablet, try using software such as PaintTool SAI or CLIP STUDIO PAINT; otherwise purchase a dedicated sketchbook and some pencils if these are in your means. But whatever the medium you decide to express your artistic talent in, always remember: invoke Apollon and the Moũsai first. As Plato says, only art inspired by the Moũsai makes a person a good artist, and those without Their blessings will be “with no success” (Plato Phaedrus, 245a).
Producing art can also be an effective coping mechanism if one is suffering from a feeling of disconnect from the Living Immortals, or even just suffering from anxiety in general. I personally draw as one of my main hobbies, and it’s helped me feel a tremendous amount of katharsis when I’m stressed from certain real life responsibilities and troubles. Art can help convey an emotion or a problem that one might otherwise be unable to formally express through mere words, and deliver an ecstatic relief of escapism from the stressful environment or situation you’re currently in. If you feel distant from your practice, feel distant in your connection to the Gods, or just feel confused about what you are doing, you can create art that expresses how you currently feel and what you wish to feel. This can help one work through emotional obstructions that one might be troubling one’s connection to the Gods, their practice, or even life more generally.
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In dedication to my friend Sophia